Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

Church politics go to court

Religious Liberty | A ruling in a Baptist tussle threatens church autonomy
by Steve West
Posted 12/08/20, 12:52 pm

What happens in church has generally stayed in church and out of courts, due to a legal doctrine called ecclesiastical abstention. But a narrowly divided appeals court recently revived an ex-church employee’s lawsuit in a decision critics say represents an unwarranted intrusion into religious matters.

Will McRaney, the former executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, objected when the Southern Baptist Convention’s church-planting body, the North American Mission Board (NAMB), moved in 2014 to exercise more control over finances and staffing at state conventions. McRaney resisted and got into a dispute with the mission board that ultimately led to the end of his employment with the state Baptist convention. He sued NAMB for defamation, saying the board made false statements about him that resulted in his firing. The SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission filed a brief urging the court to take a hands-off approach to the dispute.

A federal judge in Mississippi, where NAMB is headquartered, agreed the quarrel centered on ecclesiastical matters and dismissed the lawsuit. But a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal, ruling the case involved a civil, rather than religious dispute. On Nov. 25, the full court in a narrow 9-8 vote concurred, but the dissenters issued a scathing rebuke.

“This case is a dispute over a church’s vision for spreading ‘the gospel of Jesus Christ through evangelism and church planting’—a fundamental tenet of faith, not just for the defendant in this suit, but for hundreds of millions of evangelicals around the world,” Circuit Judge James C. Ho wrote in an opinion joined by five other judges. “Put simply, this suit puts the church’s evangelism on trial.”

Ho pointed to the Supreme Court’s July decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru as forbidding intrusion in matters of church government. “This case falls right in the heartland of the church autonomy doctrine,” Ho said. “A former Southern Baptist minister brought this suit to protest his dismissal from church leadership. That fact alone should be enough to bar this suit.”

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Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet.

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